29 December 2010

who can turn the world on with her smile?

That is not a rhetorical question, that title up there.

It's a quiz: what TV show's theme song has that line in it?

Another way to phrase that is: what TV show from the 70s am I obsessed with?

I'll give you a minute to think. A clue: It's set in Minneapolis.

Another clue: I used to wake up every morning to the theme song because it put me in that good of a mood. {Note: This clue may not be worth much, unless you've actually woken up with me, and I very highly doubt that you have.}

{Yes, I'm making you scroll down.}

{Doesn't this remind you of those email forwards that inevitably begin with "think of a number between 1 and 100"? Then you go through this whole series of questions,



until you got to the end, and it magically lists the number you first thought of.

And the person you're going to marry.

And the kind of house you'll live in.

And how many kids you'll have.

Wait, that's the game MASH.}

The Mary Tyler Moore Show

I hope you got this right. It's very important to me that you know about Mary.

Today is her birthday—is it just me, or do I seem to be writing a lot about other people's birthdays recently, people I adore but have never met? {Not that I could've met Jane Austen or Louisa May Alcott. I'm still holding out hope for Mary.}

Why I Love The Mary Tyler Moore Show
A Bullet Point List by Kamiah A. Walker
  • I saw the show for the first time when I was 12 or 13. Then, being 30 seemed the height of being grown-up, an idea later corroborated by that 13 Going on 30 movie, where the little teenager wishes to magically become 30 and it happens. Thank goodness I didn't wish to become a 30-year-old in the 70s. I might've been concerned by the hemlines and the lack of computers. {A semi-related question: Do you ever think about what people did in offices before email?}
  • I like that Mary was single and that the point of the show wasn't to marry her off. She went on lots of dates. She even got proposed to once or twice. But the show doesn't end with her wedding. As a 29-year-old single girl, this is especially important. Singleness doesn't define me, but it is fun to watch a show about another single girl.
  • Mary was a cheerleader and in student council when she was in high school. So was I. Up for grabs is whether I did those things because I wanted to be like Mary. Actually, I'll grab that one: I had wanted to be a cheerleader since I was 3; Mary had nothing to do with that one.
  • I got the first season of Mary Tyler Moore on DVD just before I left for France to teach for a year. Many, many a night—when my brain was empty from speaking French and trying to fit in all day—I would slip under the covers, prop up my laptop, and let Mary distract me and show me life in my beloved Midwest.
  • The friendship between Mary and Rhoda is so easy. Popping into each other's apartment. Eating dinner together on random weeknights. Playing tennis on Saturday afternoons. When I first moved to Wheaton five years ago, not knowing too many people, being able to watch their friendship was a comfort—not going to gloss over that fact. Did I live vicariously through TV for a little while? Yes. Mary helped.

    And now I have friends to eat dinner with on random nights, cobbling together a quiche or a salad, and stitching together conversation with threads that have been running through our lives {boys, church, work, frustrations, joys}.
  • When I have a bad day—a really bad day when I have the mean reds and start to take everything that happens as a personal affront—on days like that, I watch a very specific Mary Tyler Moore episode to help me deal: "Put on a Happy Face." It's about this time that Mary has a series of terrible, awful, no-good, very bad days, and she's tired of always having to be chipper little Mary. That one episode gives me the freedom to accept that I don't always have to be chipper little Mia. Plus, it doesn't hurt to laugh. And I always laugh, no matter how many times I watch it.

Please tell me I'm not alone in this obsession, not that you have to share my Mary fascination. I just hope I'm not the only one who uses a TV show—a leftover from an era I don't belong to—to feel better sometimes.

28 December 2010

o thou the central orb

I am of the firm belief that most businesses can close for the week between Christmas and New Year's. I like my job and I would like to believe that it is important, but there is nothing so anti-climactic as logging in to Outlook so soon after Christmas.

The glow of Christmas tree lights cannot be replaced by the computer screen glow—let's agree on that.

I know that no matter when I go back to work—after New Year's or just after Christmas—it will have a dull shine when compared to time off.

True shine is staying up past 10pm watching a movie and sleeping in until 7am—more than 7 hours of sleep and reading as much as you want after everyone else has gone to bed.

Yes, this week between Christmas and New Year's has a dull shine, like taffeta in a rich burgundy color: when the light hits it just right, the color deepens, but most of the time, it has a flat look to it.

I have things to look forward to {that's the light hitting the taffeta just right}: a movie, good runs, writing thank you cards because yes, that is something I enjoy.

But mostly, this week feels like it's trying too hard to be normal. It also doesn't help that my gym is still piping Christmas music into the locker room and yet I saw a display for Valentine's Day at the grocery store; we are in a seasonally confused time.

I am going to counteract the dull shine of this week—when I'm in the office and it seems that no one else is—with a song.

I do hope you've learned by now that if I don't like the way something is going, I try to change it, either with a song or with a good quote or with comfy food. Distracting yourself just a little is an excellent way to trick your mind into accepting what's going on. This is not self-delusion, by the way; it's self-maintenance.

Today's distraction comes from "O Thou the Central Orb"—my choir sang it at our Christmas concert.

I get such a rush of nerdy word love from its words: Gilding. Darksome. Erewhile.

Words like that make me want to rush onto a moor with Jane Eyre, preferably with a storm swirling on the horizon.

But what I'm holding on to in this song during this dull shine week is its images of light breaking through: Radiance bright. Rays divine. Eternal day. Bright beams.

Let there be light. And it was good.

O Thou the Central Orb

O thou the central orb of righteous love
Pure beam of the most High
Eternal light of this our wintry world
Thy radiance bright
awakes new joy in faith
Hope soars above

Come, quickly come and let Thy glory shine
gilding our darksome heaven with rays divine

Thy saints with holy lustre
'round Thee move
as stars about Thy throne
set in the height of God's ordaining counsel
as Thy sight gives measur'd grace to each—
Thy power to prove

Let Thy bright beams disperse the gloom of sin
Our nature all shall feel
eternal day in fellowship with Thee,
transforming clay
to souls erewhile unclean, now pure within

27 December 2010

the sound of music

I came home from home yesterday, the kind of sentence that makes sense at the holidays. I went home for the holidays, but of course my home, the one where my Christmas decorations are and the one where I pay the bills, is no longer in Burlington.

I like to think of myself as a two home sort of person. {Note: It is a dream of mine to one day be able to say "my summer cottage." I guess I could say it now; it just wouldn't be true. My summer cottage. There, a dream come true.}

But before I went back to paying the bills and work, I took yesterday as a last stretch of vacation.

Conveniently enough, ABC seemed to be aware of my plan and showed The Sound of Music last night, which is one of those movies that flits through the back of my memory at all times.

I see a fountain, I think of The Sound of Music.

I sing the solfege {do re mi fa so la ti do}, I think of The Sound of Music.

I wear a pretty dress, I think of The Sound of Music.

It's not that I watched it much when I was growing up; I was more obsessed with the Annette Funicello Babes in Toyland. I really just think it's imprinted in my memory because it's one of those epic, everyone-has-seen-it kinds of movies. It's part of our collective memory, collective culture, collective experience {as Americans pretending we were European, perhaps}.

When I was flipping through the channels last night, trying to find something to watch while I sewed, I came across "16 Going on 17," and I immediately wanted to dance on benches.

Because of that song, I have always wanted to dance on benches, leaping from stone bench to stone bench in the rain.

When I was little, I used to make do in the living room, where we had no stone benches. I would jump up and down on the couch and pretend that I was a very grown-up 16 {almost 17} and that someone was singing about how much he wanted to take care of me.

Last night, at a very grown-up 29, I did not jump on the couch, most likely because it is my couch and I want to take good care of it.

Instead, I cut out fabric and sang loudly, which is like dancing on benches in your heart.

23 December 2010

christmas mass at 8am

"There is a winter storm warning for southeast Iowa, starting tonight at midnight and going through Christmas Eve at 6pm. Christmas day, there is a 90% chance of snow."

My grandpa and I were watching TV in his room at Sunnybrook. Not the farm. We did not send my grandpa to the farm with Rebecca. He's at this cozy senior living facility, the kind of place that helps him arrange bridge parties and even makes the Chex Mix for him to serve.

I'd stopped by Sunnybrook on this Christmas Adam {you know, because Adam came before Eve. Religious humor is so appropriate this time of year}, and Grandpa and I were discussing Christmas plans.

"Well, it's going to be snowing on Christmas." My grandpa did not sound enthused about this.

"I know! It'll be a white Christmas!" I practically had tinsel in my voice. Given how less-than-excited my grandpa sounded, I decided to overcompensate by trying dredge up memories of Bing Crosby and that Frosty the Snowman cartoon, all with the twinkle in my voice.

It didn't work.

"And I have to go to Mass at 8 that morning, damn it!"

If he'd had a beer in his hand at that moment, he would've been the picture-perfect stereotypical Catholic. Committed to the ritual, if a little bitter about it.

He will be there to celebrate the Baby Jesus' birth because that's what you do. You get some Holy Water, kneel to the Virgin, say some prayers, and eat the Body of Christ. It's what he does every week; the only thing that's special about this week is that Mass is at 8am. Damn it.

The frankness is what is so appealing. So many of us—myself at the very front of that list—like to put on a happy face. We are Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, thinking that we have to like everything that's happening. Or at least look like we do and talk like we do.

Now, there's something to be said for finding the good in every situation, and I am a huge proponent of that.

There's also something to speaking positively about a situation where you need an attitude adjustment: I believe this is the "fake it until you make it" principle. Talk as if you're okay with what's going on, and soon enough, you will be.

But there's also something to a quick volley of honesty, allowing yourself that shot of disappointment or anger or sadness. Or frustration that you have to be at Mass at 8am.

You say, "Now here is what I'm feeling," and then you find that recognizing the negative brewing within you actually weakens its charge.

I believe there's room for both reactions in all of us. Room for Rebecca and room for that flash of negativity.

There was just no room at the inn and now we have to go to Mass at 8am to remember that, damn it.

{Sorry about all the cursing in this post. I don't normally use bad words, as evidenced by how I still refer to them as "bad words," as if I were a little girl categorizing the world. But you can't tell a story about my grandpa without getting in a few bad words.}

21 December 2010

a stable-place sufficed

Tonight is the longest night of the year, the kind of night that makes you think phrases like "dark night of the soul" while you pull a blanket around you and try to figure out how to drink wine and simultaneously keep your arms under the blanket where it's warm.

{Idea: Use one of those beer hat things, those contraptions made for frat boys at football games. Or perhaps rednecks while deer hunting, I don't know. It does free up your hands, but I think sipping a Medoc out of a straw descending from a trucker hat might—perhaps—cut down on the classy factor of feeling very introspective and yet connected to humanity here on the longest night.}

{Idea Again: Have wine before crawling under blanket. Because wine is, apparently, essential for me in this scenario.}

Tonight also makes me think of that Christina Rosetti poem "In the Bleak Midwinter," even though midwinter is technically February, that most horrific and draining of months.

My choir sang that song at our Christmas concert a few weeks ago. I love those clear, cold lines Christina wrote—letting us sing about how Heaven couldn't hold Jesus any more and so he came here to a stable-place {that hyphen makes a difference, doesn't it? Without it, it says that Jesus came to a stable world, when really he came to bring stability to our instability.}

But as much as I adore that song, it has always bothered me that Christmas isn't in the midwinter; it's barely in winter. {As a sidenote: yes, I understand that Christmas is essentially a made-up date, and no, we don't know that Jesus' birthday was December 25. I don't think they had a month called December back then.}

Winter starts today, and so by the time the real midwinter comes, I'm a bit worn jagged by the frosty winds and snow falling, snow on snow. {You may have been able to guess that's how I feel by February, given how I described it above.}

Weather terminology aside, it's the emotion of midwinter that Rosetti was going for, of course. That irrational fear that spring will never come again, that you will never be warm again, that flowers will forget how to grow.

In the midwinter, you focus on the darkness, and so "In the Bleak Midwinter," Rosetti is telling us—remember those dark nights of your soul? Remember when you weren't sure if any happiness could take root in your heart? Remember when it seemed like the black around you would not end?

And then think of the light, the light you know is coming.

Tonight is the longest night of the year, which means that tomorrow night will be a minute or two shorter. And the next night a minute or two shorter than that. On and on until it's that time again when you can take a walk at 9 at night and still be in the light.

Christmas comes just at that time when the night is starting to turn into day. How fitting. What a thing to celebrate. Perhaps with wine.

In the Bleak Midwinter
Christina Rosetti

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

16 December 2010

in honor of jane austen's birthday: be the elinor

Jane Austen is 235 today, and judging from her author portrait on the dust jacket of Sense and Sensibility, she's looking good for her age. I can only hope to look that good, should I ever decide to wear a bonnet like that.

Seeing as Jane Austen is in my blog title, I feel like I should be doing something more monumental. I mean, if I thought I should throw a birthday party for LM Montgomery and Louisa May Alcott a few weeks ago—my gosh, for Jane Austen, my witty inspiration, I should've embroidered something or arranged a piano-forte concert or adopted a British accent for the day.

But I didn't.

People might think I was, I don't know, slightly confused about the line between truth and fiction if I made such ado about Jane.

Instead I will honor her in a small, more appropriate way—which is, I have to say, something I learned from Jane Austen. Small actions can be significant.

Elinor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility is the one who taught me that. A friend and I used to have a saying: Be the Elinor.

I think you'll readily see why in this Jane excerpt {see, this is me honoring her with a little excerpt}:

Elinor, this eldest daughter whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother [...]. She had an excellent heart; her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong: but she knew how to govern them.

Be the Elinor simply meant: Control your emotions. You do have them, of course—we all have them, but some of us choose to let them govern us. Marianne Dashwood, I'm looking directly at you.

Be the Elinor doesn't mean be an emotional android. Elinor felt strongly and deeply; it was only her reactions to situations and other people that she measured out with moderation.

And there's a good deal of sense in that.

Happy birthday, Jane!

15 December 2010

the work of the weather

Why I don't want to stand up
from this chair
is as obvious as
looking out the window.

It is a Little House on the Prairie blizzard out there,
the white-out
swirling kind
where Pa had to tie a rope
between the little house
and the little barn
so that he could find his way to do
his big chores.

Any weather that involves blindness is not for me.

Sitting in this armchair by the window
under a blanket
in sweatpants from my high school tennis days

Drinking French press coffee
with cream
from a Waffle House mug

Eking out my thoughts
in a journal
with a turquoise pen

That is work enough for me.

The weather is doing most of the work today:
it takes a blizzard-sized effort
snowflake upon snowflake of earth's energy
to keep people like us inside,
without a plan to do more
but get up
to re-fill a coffee cup.

14 December 2010

so much to say

I have so much to say that I don't know where to start, an unusual place for me to be in. Usually, I have an agenda so clearly set—perhaps even for when I'm talking to friends—that this not knowing what to say first is somewhat confusing and tiring.

To make it worse, I have so very little time. After all my pontificating about having a calm Christmas season, a quiet Christmas, a caramel Christmas...after all that, I find myself somewhat stretched for time. Because of Christmas activities.

I have a cookie exchange to go to in 30 minutes, and I just finished typing the recipe for the Chocolate Mint Meltaways I'm bringing. To fit the actual baking into my schedule, I had to make these on Saturday night, listening to Garrison Keillor, which was, I'm sorry to say, a mish-mash of other Christmas episodes of "A Prairie Home Companion" as my NPR station tried to raise money here at the end of the year.

Every time the station people—not Garrison Keillor—came on to plead, I wanted to scream, "But I've already given! Stop telling me to be generous!"

Not exactly a restful, peaceful Christmas thought.

I also hope my cookies aren't dried out and sad now, several days after I baked them. But I tell you, it was the only time.

But I have so much more to say. Much more that isn't about cookies. I want to talk about my dinner party, and how I found a quote in a new book I'm reading—Gone with the Windsors—that made me laugh, thinking about the planning and details that went into this winter dinner party for 13.

I read last night, "We've been worked off our feet all afternoon planning her dinner party. There's so much to do. The menu to be decided and the placement, new table linens and stemware to be purchased, conversational topics to be studies. Wally reads the newspapers cover to cover every day, and she's skimmed through centuries of history and philosophy while having her hair done. She says one hardly ever needs to plod through an entire book."

That is not how I planned for my dinner party; I did not read one philosophy book in preparation, but I want to tell you more about what it was like to sit at the head of a long table, 12 friends lined up {6 on each side}, everyone smiling and looking their most beautiful in candlelight.

And then there's my birthday. My publication party last week. Oh, yes, I need to tell you what ended up getting published...!

You see I'm overwhelmed and distracted. In a very fitting example of how stretched thin I am, I will share what I did this morning. Before work.

I didn't go running because I needed to work on my mother's Christmas present. At 5:45, I was sewing away {that is the only hint you'll get, Mother}, coffee steaming next to me, and ice on the sidewalk outside.

The Christmas tree lights were on—that's the first thing I do every morning, actually. I rush out to the tree and plug them in. That is a moment of hushed expectation.

NPR was giving me conversational topics for the day, along with fun updates on the wind chill: "It's 3 degrees out with a wind chill of 10 below."

This morning, I did laundry, ironed, paid bills, sewed, set aside a pile to take to the dry cleaners, got started on thank you notes, and then I went to work at 8:30.

I felt exhausted before I walked in the door, and yet I knew that if I didn't get some of those things done, I would feel even more exhausted with the weight of an undone task.

I should go. I should go. There's dinner to be eaten before the cookie exchange. But I just wanted to quickly say: I have so much to say, but I cannot find the time to say it and I hope I'm not alone in that feeling.

And I don't want this feeling to last until Christmas.

07 December 2010

i have something to brag about. i think.

A short list of things I am not good at:
  1. quick mental math
  2. dancing, at least the non-structured kind. I will gladly tango any day, but do not make me re-visit memories of high school dances. Pretty dresses, yes, but bad music I pretended to know while I danced awkwardly with my date, no, never again.
  3. bragging about myself
I especially struggle with that last one, which is probably a good thing. Nobody like a braggart. {But braggart is a very fun word to say. And type. Try it. It reminds me of Bogart.}

I'm rather good at bragging about other people. For example:

My sister—it's her birthday today—is one of the smartest people I know. She does a job I don't entirely understand, partly because it's a top secret Air Force job and she can't tell anyone what she really does, but also because it involves physics and I remember just the basics of physics.

Here's a re-enactment of a conversation we had at Thanksgiving, complete with my inner monologue:
In Kamiah's Head: I like her t-shirt. It has a kitty cat on it. Since we are so divergent in what we wear, I should compliment her on her clothing choice.
Kamiah: Ooh, your shirt is cool.
Sister: Thanks! Funny reference to Schrodinger's cat, eh?
In Kamiah's Head: OMG, who is Schrodinger? Was that the name of the bad guy on the Smurfs? He had a cat, right? A cat who tormented the Smurfs? Does the cat on her t-shirt look anything like a Smurf creation? Why isn't it blue?
Kamiah: [utter silence that lasts for too long, followed by a guffaw] Yeah, funny.
Sister: Yeah, is the cat dead, or what?
In Kamiah's Head: OMG, they killed something on a children's show??!!?
Sister: Ahh, entanglement.
Kamiah: Hey, think you'll see that movie Tangled? I heard it's the last fairy tale Disney will ever do.
In Kamiah's Head: Please please please please please let her be distracted by that.

{Note: If you remember as much as I do about Schrodinger's cat, you can learn more about it here.}

So yeah, my sister is super smart and does lots of super top secret smart things in the Air Force. She may or may not also have a cat. It might be dead. Which is sad. But happiness: it's her birthday today!

But I still struggle to brag about myself.

Right now, I have some brag-worthy news, but my dang Midwestern modesty is getting in the way.

Therefore, I'll simply bulldoze through the modesty with my directness: I submitted some of my writing to a local literary journal, and it got accepted.

There, that wasn't so bad, although granted, that wasn't bragging so much as simply announcing.

But yeah. I'm getting published.

There's a publication party tomorrow, which—and you're under no compulsion to know this—is my birthday {yes, my sister and I have back-to-back birthdays—two years and five hours apart}, so I'm thinking of this party as a birthday party all for me.

I hope they have those little smokies. Ooh, and maybe a cheese tray. Perhaps some sort of cake, as well.

I submitted four pieces, but I don't actually know what they accepted. Perhaps all of them. Perhaps just one. I'll let you know. In a non-bragging sort of way.

In a helpful sort of way, here are links to what I submitted, should you want to review them and think, 'Would I publish this?'

{This thought is especially helpful if you're a publisher. Let me know if you are, and I'll save you a piece of cake from my birthday party/publication party. That's my way of bribing you.}

delayed pleasure {a poem}
tell me again {another poem}
about my mother's tattoo {a funny, funny piece about, obviously, my mother's tattoo}
some like it hot {about the time i learned i'm not a handyman}

I have to admit, there is a small part of me that would like to brag, so I'm going to put it in small type. Maybe you won't even read this, and then I don't have to feel guilty for bragging.

Oh my word, oh my word, oh my word! Someone who is not my mother read something I wrote and decided it was pretty okay!

And they want other people to read it!

I know it's just a local thing—it's called the Prairie Light Review, by the way—but does that even matter? You have to start somewhere, right?

I'm going to be officially published, and on my 29th birthday, which seems like it must be significant somehow but I don't want to try to think too hard about symbolism right now.

I also don't want to think too hard about other people who had published a lot more by their 29th birthday because comparison is a1a) not really part of bragging, b2b) never helpful {unless you want to help yourself into a cranky mood}, and c3c) certainly not appropriate on your Birthday Eve.

So yes: I'm getting published, and I'm a little smile-y about that.

Thank you for letting me brag a little bit. Also for reading my stuff. Yeah, especially for that.

05 December 2010

birthdays and a sharp tongue

I realized that I've been writing about Christmas a lot recently—well, 'tis the season and all that.

However, I'm taking a break from Christmas today, and instead going on a little literary diversion.

Did you know that LM Montgomery and Louisa May Alcott's birthdays were last week?


Well, I didn't, either. Then Twitter, that source of knowledge and wasted time, taught me something. Louisa's was November 29 and LM's was November 30.

I should've had a party, and I am, I must say, slightly disappointed that I missed a chance to have a literary nerdy party.

Next year. There's always next year. I'll start planning my costume now. You should, too.

As if wanting to further cement this LM and Louisa connection—and their separate but similar effects on my life—someone got to my blog by searching "little women and anne of green gables similarities."

Google sent them here, and while yes, I have written a little about both Jo and Anne, I like to think of it this way: Google knows that I am the embodiment of both Jo and Anne. The search results prove it, people. What do Little Women and Anne of Green Gables have in common? ME.

To celebrate—belatedly—I'm offering an excerpt from Little Women, one that has been particularly helpful to me today.

Jo, Anne, and I have this in common: Wayward tongues. Sharp tones. Tempers.

We have the ability to slice with our words and the knowledge that we can cut people down with well-placed verbs.

But we also share an earnest desire to control the sharpness. To use our words to build others up or to make them laugh. To be practiced in the art of thinking before we speak.

When I have days when my tongue has been sharper than a doubled-edged sword {and not in the Word of God way}, that's when I need to turn to Marilla or Marmee. I need to read, in tough love language, that this will be a life-long challenge—this learning to rein in my words—but that it is worth it. That other people struggle with this. That every time you speak harshly, that is an opportunity to speak kindly in apology—to carefully consider those words so that you can suture up the wound you caused in a friendship or relationship.

I spoke out of turn today, but I know that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it {there's my tribute to Anne}. And I need to read again what Marmee says to Jo about controlling her tongue.


"It's my dreadful temper! I try to cure it; I think I have, and then it breaks out worse than ever. Oh, mother, what shall I do? What shall I do?" cried poor Jo, in despair.

"Watch and pray, dear; never get tired of trying; and never think it is impossible to conquer your fault," said Mrs. March, kissing the wet cheek so tenderly that Jo cried harder than ever.

"You don't know, and you can't guess how bad it is! It seems as if I could do anything when I'm in a passion; I get so savage, I could hurt anyone, and enjoy it. I'm afraid I shall do something dreadful someday, and spoil my life, and make everybody hate me. Oh, mother, help me, do help me!"

"I will, my child, I will. Don't cry so bitterly, but remember this day, and resolve, with all your soul, that you will never know another like it. Jo, dear, we all have our temptations, some far greater than yours, and it often takes us all our lives to conquer them...."

02 December 2010

a caramel christmas. but first: shouting.

I have one more way to interpret that original questionwhat is it about a little bit of light that fills us with such wonder this time of year?

It's the Hallmark Channel interpretation. The Hallmark Channel brings the Currier and Ives print to life and then plays it on repeat from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Lifetime does this, too, and I think ABC Family is also playing Christmas movies non-stop.

The Hallmark Channel symbolically represents the all-Christmas-all-the-time view that has taken over, and it makes us think that Christmas is about more.

For the entire month of December—no, let's admit it, the Christmas "season" starts before Thanksgiving and perhaps even before Halloween in some stores—there's a shouting match for our attention: BUY MORE, SPEND MORE, DO MORE, BE MORE, MAKE MORE PERFECT MEMORIES, EAT MORE, DECORATE MORE.

We start to think we must make room in our hearts for Jesus—and room above the hearth for a 52-inch TV. Because if we don't buy that as a present, then we don't really love whoever thinks they want that.

If we're not careful, Christmas can become nothing but noise as we listen to those shouts for our attention and money and time.


Christmas is a time when we can more distinctly feel the pull in disparate directions.

The spiritual. The familial. The shopping-al. {Not a word, I know, but I liked the parallel I had going there with the -al. I guess I could've used the word financial. Eh, too late to take it back now.}

The last thing you want to feel during Christmas is stretched so thin that people can see through you, and that is why I encourage you to approach Christmas as if it were caramel this year.

Yes, caramel. Because:
  1. it's malleable: I'm going to sound really trite here, but Christmas takes on whatever shape you give it. You don't have to stick with certain traditions, and you can buck expectations {especially self-expectations}.

    You don't have to craft your own Christmas cards and have them mailed by the first week in December—if you don't want to. You don't have to decorate—if you don't want to.

    You can watch every Christmas movie ever made—if you want to. You can give up something for Advent—if you want to. The point is to shape Christmas as you want it.
  2. but it can also be hard: Hard as in difficult or hard as in rigid. The difficult part we don't need to get into: holidays come with baggage, even if you don't travel anywhere {lame joke}. Let's look at the rigid, as in rigid boundaries. It's important to put up a good fence or wall or some other kind of protective barrier around what you want to do to enjoy Christmas. This may mean that you don't say yes to every party you get invited to—but instead say no knowing that you shouldn't socially max yourself out.

    It's okay to say no sometimes. Some people have trouble believing that, particularly during the holidays when you're supposed to be happy and friendly and cheery all the time, at all costs to your own little soul.

    Because of your little soul, trying hard to truly celebrate Christmas, you do need a bit of a hard edge to your boundaries.
  3. it's made out of basically one ingredient: Christmas can be simple: friends, Jesus, family. What's the one thing about Christmas you enjoy so much?
  4. but you can make it more complicated by adding other things to it: Please scroll back up to the part where I talk about how it's okay to say no to stuff during the Christmas season. When you start trying to please everyone, from your boss to Martha Stewart to Good Housekeeping, you start losing track of how Christmas is supposed to be fun.
  5. it's a challenge to get just right: I don't know anyone who's figured out the best Christmas balance and been able to stick to it every year. Every year, we all need reminders of how to truly celebrate without wanting to slowly pull our own teeth out because that might be less painful than this blessedly exhausting holiday season.
  6. but when you do, man, that's sweet: Literally sweet, in the case of caramel. And in the case of Christmas, you know what moments I'm talking about. The little or big ones where everyone gave a contented sigh at once. The time when you were little and you woke up at 3am on Christmas morning, peeked through the curtains, and saw a bright shining star that looked like it could be the Star of Bethlehem. Whatever sweetness is to you, look for snatches of it this Christmas.
  7. and even if you don't get it right, you most likely still have a good story about you leaning too close to the pan, staring at the sugar, waiting for it to turn the right auburn color, talking to it and demanding to know if it's done yet: Not to sound too much like your mom here, but you can always learn from bad experiences, and later, you may even be able to laugh about them. A bad Christmas does not mean you're a bad person with a bad family and bad friends and a bad dog and bad hair. It just means that you get to try again next year to have a good Christmas.

Merry Caramel Christmas!

01 December 2010

just like a picture print by currier and ives

There's the Currier and Ives way to interpret the wonder that fills most of us during the Christmas season. I call it that—Currier and Ives way—because of that line in the Christmas song "Sleigh Ride." You know, that part that goes:

There's a happy feeling nothing in the world can buy
When they pass around the coffee and the pumpkin pie
It'll nearly be like a picture print by Currier and Ives
These wonderful things are the things
We remember all through our lives.

Most people have no idea what Currier and Ives is, but they equate it with an ideal view of Christmas, this dream of how the holidays should go. In the picture are twinkle lights, children in matching outfits, and a yet-to-be carved turkey.

We put a lot of stock in the Currier and Ives view of Christmas, and we start to think that it's the perfection of the image—the slick presentation of a shiny, happy family—that creates the Christmas glow.

When we build up Christmas like that, we run the risk of disappointment in the actual day because we don't live in a Currier and Ives print. No one does; even Currier and Ives didn't live in one of their freeze-frame views of familial bliss.

The twinkle lights may blow, leaving you with a half-twinkling tree.

The children may squabble over who got the better present.

The turkey, once it's carved, is, I'm sorry to say, a revolting, somewhat-haunting carcass. It is not something you want to leave on your dining room table.

What is it about the Currier and Ives view of Christmas that fills us with such a nostalgic longing, even if our Christmas doesn't turn out like that?

And what can you do this year to make sure that expectations are realistic, held-in-check, not based on an unachievable notion of should?

{That question is asked assuming you're like me and need daily reminders to not let expectations zoom away from you. If you're not like that, please call me immediately and tell me how you do this.}

30 November 2010

o christmas tree: the beginning of advent

Before I went to bed last night, I sat on my couch and stared in wonder at the Christmas tree. What is it about a little bit of light that fills us all with such wonder this time of year?

There is, of course, the theological way to interpret that: what is it about the promise of the light of Christ, the long-expected Jesus, that makes many of us pause in wonder, in hopeful expectation, in gratefulness this time of year?

I didn't grow up in a liturgical church {it was Pentecostal, which may be the farthest from a liturgical church you can get}. I'm a bit late, then, to this whole idea of Advent and of using the Advent season to make room in your heart for Jesus.

I like it, though.

Advent is, to me, the fun cousin of Lent. Both of them are about quieting yourself before God, about turning over your desires to him, about daily sitting in his presence.

Both encourage you to focus less on yourself and more on Christ.

However, because in Advent we're looking forward to Christ's birth, there's more of a celebratory feel to it. You get to make room in your heart and eat sugar cookies.


I have two other ways to interpret the wonder of this time of year, but I'm saving those up for the next two days. I bet you have a lot of things going on right now, here just before the calendar flips to December, so I'll let you get back to those.

Me, I'm going to turn on my Christmas tree lights and sit in wonder for a few more minutes.

29 November 2010

it's beginning to look a lot like christmas

"After Thanksgiving, pumpkins just look out of place," I said to my sister and brother-in-law the day after Thanksgiving.

We were driving by a house in Burlington that had a row of pumpkins out on the deck. A day before, they were just-the-right-thing. They were appropriate and festive, but 24 hours later, they looked wrong to me.

"Are you going to blog about that?" my brother-in-law asked from the back seat. It must've been something in my tone that tipped him off. I said that pumpkin thing with a twinge of Kathleen Kelly in You've Got Mail when she's talking about autumn in New York City and she gets excited over Scotch tape.

Anything that sounds like a rhapsody on a completely normal thing is probably going to end up as my next blog post.

{Also, Sid has clearly picked up on my trick of testing out material on people I know. If I get a good response to something I say, I write about it. If you want me to stop writing and you know me, stop being enthusiastic, laughing, saying things like, "Oh, you should write about that!"}

As soon as Thanksgiving is over, I make the mental transition to Christmas. We're talking as soon as the dishes are clean and the leaves are taken out of the table so that it's back to its regular size {and not stretched to seat 10 people}—I'm ready for holly-jolly.

Given my demand that no Christmas decorations appear until after Thanksgiving, I know that I'm expecting too much of society. Slash expecting too much of myself.

For my demands to be met on a society-wide level, we need an army of elves or perhaps just a very committed group of volunteers, propelled by Christmas spirit and sugar and/or caffeine.

I want them to take down and properly deal with all fall-related decorations, which should be left up until Thanksgiving. Leaves in yards count as fall-related decorations.

Simultaneous to that, I need this little elf/sugar army to paint the town red. As in Santa Claus red, but it should be done tastefully. By that I mean according to my tastes.

No inflatable anything in the front lawn, but especially no inflatable snowglobes.

Nativity scenes should not be made of Disney characters. That's just confusing for the kids, who are trying to remember that Jesus isn't Santa Claus; we should not put on them trying to remember that Jesus isn't Mickey Mouse.

Every house should have a light theme: blue, white, multi-colored. Pick one kind and stick with it.

Those light-up deer—you know, the wireframe ones with twinkle lights on them—are acceptable.

There are other rules, but I won't get into them. I don't want to seem too demanding/judgmental/unappreciative of other people's Christmas cheer.

All of these strong opinions on decoration come out of an intense love of Christmas, its traditions, and the build-up of the season.

They also come out of an intense desire to welcome and appreciate and savor every season, especially the holiday season. I take great joy in anticipation, but as evidenced by my pumpkins-are-out-of-place thought, I incline toward a rush to move on.

Get to the next season.

The next celebration.

I don't like that inclination, that headlong fling, picking up speed as I race down the hill, falling forward into the next.

Does anyone else do this? Work so hard to appreciate the moment—and then jump ahead to the next?

I'm making an early new year's resolution to not do that this Christmas season. I will appreciate the build-up and the wind-down. I will not always be thinking of forging ahead, as if my being depended on newness.

To begin, my Christmas traditions, created several years ago to slow me down as the build-up to the holiday threatens to make me go too fast...
  • Watch The Mary Tyler Moore Show Christmas episode from the first season while putting up the tree
  • Meditate on the Magnificat at least 3 times a week
  • Read the Christmas story every week
  • Read A Miracle on 34th Street, the version I got from my aunt when I was 8, the one illustrated by Tommie DePaola
  • throw a Christmas cookie baking party {this year's party might be expanded to include crafts}
{Note to self: take down fall decorations tonight.}

26 November 2010

more on how i lost my wallet

My sister keeps pestering me for the end of the wallet story. {Read the beginning, if you'd like.} So even though she got the full rendition yesterday at Thanksgiving—and before that, had heard the full story from our mom—I will tell it again, for her reading enjoyment.

Oh, and for your reading enjoyment, because I bet you weren't at Thanksgiving with me.

If you were and if you'd been sitting at the kids' table {the youngest kids are 25}, you would've been regaled with this. Such regaling I did—so much, in fact, that I didn't eat at the same pace as everyone else. I was on the mashed potato course {it has its own course when you love mashed potatoes as much as I do} while everyone else was deciding what kind of pie to have.

There are leftover mashed potatoes beckoning to me now, but I will resist their siren song {my Irish roots are showing in how much I love potatoes} and at my sister's request, finish the wallet story.


It took about three minutes for me to realize that I'd left my wallet in the bathroom at O'Hare. Three minutes, in the scheme of life or even just a day, isn't that long. It's like a commercial break. Or how long it takes to make microwavable popcorn. You think not much can happen in three minutes. It is, however, enough time to order a soy latte and decide what kind of sandwich to get at Starbucks.

It was past 8pm, and I'd just flown in from a business trip to Miami. While my boss waited for his luggage at the baggage claim, I offered to pick us up something from Starbucks.

Looking back on the actions that led to me walking out of the bathroom wallet-less, I can find so many moments that would change the outcome of that Sunday night. So many decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse, as Prufrock famously blathered on about—we all do this when something big, be it good or bad, happens.

We start thinking in sentences like, "If I hadn't gone into that store, something I never do, to buy that thing I didn't need, I never would have tripped over that poorly placed power cord and fallen straight into his arms. And now we're married."

You don't even have to try that hard to start seeing your days in this domino effect way. If you hadn't spent two minutes looking for your gloves, you would've made the train. You wouldn't have been late to work. If you hadn't, then you would've.

I generally stop this line of thinking when I start to feel that life is one big happenstance. It's best not to linger on what could've been and instead focus on where you are.

Which in my case was standing at the end of the Starbucks counter by baggage claim 3 at O'Hare, digging through my computer bag, looking for my wallet.

It goes in the big inside pocket; that is its place. When things are out of place, it doesn't take long for me to panic. On the inside, of course.

On the outside, I kept up an easy chatter to my boss, who'd gotten his luggage and was now waiting for me. "Well, hmmm, that's funny. My wallet is always right here, but maybe I...no, it's not in that section. It'd be crazy if I put it...oh, nope, not in the suitcase."

Commence intense rifling through personal belongings—simultaneous to intense internal re-tracing of my steps.

  • Decided to go to Starbucks.
  • During walk to Starbucks, pulled wallet out of computer bag and then took debit card out of wallet.
  • Put debit card in back pocket when I decided that I should stop at the bathroom first.
    In the bathroom, I put the wallet on top of the toilet paper holder and my computer bag on the ground.
  • And then I walked out of the bathroom with just my computer bag.
I could see it all so clearly, and I laughed as I said to my boss, "Oh gosh! It's in the bathroom! You stay here by my stuff, and I'll be right back."

Because at that moment, I really did believe that I would walk back into the bathroom stall, and there it would be. My green wallet. Just waiting for me. Right where I'd left it.

I thought this because I forgot that I wasn't in Iowa anymore. Nor was I in my suburb that functions like a small town: there, you can leave your computer on the table at Starbucks, right in plain sight, while you get a refill on coffee. No one will take it; you probably have a higher likelihood of someone giving you a tip on how to make your computer work better. Or telling you about a Glee song they just downloaded that keeps their toes tapping all day long.

This is the world I live in, one where wallets are returned and everyone laughs over your moment of silliness.

O'Hare is not in that world.


I'm not doing this on purpose, only telling part of the story at once. I really would prefer to get this all out and done with, as I did at Thanksgiving. It would've been easier if you'd all been in Iowa for Thanksgiving, I have to say.

But right now, I have to go eat leftovers. My mother is calling me, and you do not tarry when your mother calls you. I don't care how old you are—that rule still applies.

{And I'm doing this piecemeal to annoy my sister. I will forever be the pesky little sister, even on the Internet.}

25 November 2010

callahan family orange rolls

Orange rolls. If there aren't orange rolls somewhere in the buffet line-up at Thanksgiving, my family's holiday is a little less Norman Rockwell and a lot more whiny. {Although you know that in that Rockwell image, a little kid is kicking his sister under the table. Nothing is as it seems, especially in iconic images of americana perfection.}

We've always had orange rolls in the Callahan family. Always have and always will, if I have anything to do with it, which I do, seeing as I'm in the family and of my sister and me, I'm the one who likes to cook.

My great-grandma used to make them, back when she hosted Thanksgiving at her house in Albia, Iowa. That's when my mom was little, and then she grew up into the one who hosts Thanksgiving every year.

With the hosting responsibility came the privilege of making the family orange rolls, and like the methodical person she is, my mom asked my great-grandma to write down the recipe.

Up until that point, it was one of those "in the head" recipes that great-grandmas are known for. She didn't need a recipe card for this and made it seem that she had been born with the knowledge of the proportions of salt, sugar, shortening, and flour. {Why was I not born with that knowledge? Do I not have some of her genes?}

My great-grandma was, I must remember, part of that generation who cooked three meals a day, day after day, for years on end—not to make it sound monotonous, but just to point out that cooking was second nature. It wasn't something she pulled out on special occasions.

Great-grandma did write it down, but my mom spent the next several years asking clarifying questions.

"Grandma, you said that the oven should be at 400, but my rolls just burn at 400."

"I never said 400!" my grandma answered, quite contrary to what her own handwriting said. "I always put the oven at 375."

One of the most perplexing instructions in the recipe is: "Keep adding flour until the proper texture."

My mom, try as she may, could not get my great-grandma to explain that better.

"Well," she would say, "I just keep going until it feels right."

Ah, until it feels right. That really clears things up. The word "proper" was what was confusing.

With every new insight she got, my mom made notes on the original handwritten recipe, and it's becoming something of a family heirloom—in my eyes, anyway.

There's my great-grandma's spidery handwriting, complete with extra-loopy L's that make you yearn for times when handwritten letters were the norm.

In little asides, there's my mother's straightforward handwriting, hints of how to get these to turn out right so that Thanksgiving always tastes like it did when she was little. And like it did when I was little.

I've started to learn how to make the Callahan family orange rolls, so I fully expect that one day, I'll get the handwritten recipe to add my own notes to.

Actually, I've already started adding: in the recipe below, the bold additions are my mother's notes. {You can see, then, that my great-grandma actually left out the instruction to let the rolls rise, then punch them down and roll them out. Perhaps, to her, that was just so obvious. Of course the rolls would rise. Of course you'd punch them down. How else do you expect to make bread?}

The bold and italicized notes are me because when I'm learning, I'm an every-step-spelled-out girl, and I'll need to do this a few more times to get all my orange roll steps outlined thoroughly enough for even me.

And then one day, these orange rolls will be second nature to me, just as they were to my great-grandma. I hope.


  • 2 packages yeast
  • 1/2 cup lukewarm water
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup shortening
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 6 to 7 cups flour
for the glaze

  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • rind and juice from one orange

  1. Dissolve the yeast in the water that is heated to 110 to 115. Let set while you do the basic recipe.
  2. Beat the eggs, then add the shortening, salt, and sugar.
  3. Put in the milk that is heated to luke warm {same temp as water}.
  4. Add 2 cups flour and beat well.
  5. Add the yeast and beat again {beat real good}.
  6. Keep adding flour until the proper texture.
  7. Knead.
  8. Let rise, punch down, and roll out.
  9. Brush with butter, sugar, and orange rind, and then roll up.
  10. Cut into 1 1/2 inch slices and arrange rolls in buttered and floured 9x13 pan.
  11. Bake at 400 {my mother has crossed this out and corrected it to 375} for 15 minutes {my mother says really, it's 12-15 minutes}.
  12. Before serving, heat the rolls and then add the glaze.

24 November 2010

november conundrums

On my drive home to Iowa tonight, there was a thunderstorm, a crackling good one, making me think for a second that it was late summer and I was headed home to boat rides on the Mississippi and sweet corn on the deck.

But no, it's late November. I had a scarf wrapped around my neck, wrapped in just the way my French friend taught me.

It's Thanksgiving. Fall is coiling around itself, pulling us closer to winter when we all, at some point, feel that primal urge to burrow. We usually satisfy that urge with sweaters and down comforters and the kind of hot chocolate that's so thick, you have to use a spoon to drink it.

The thunder and lightning flashed me back to August, hot, stifling, can't-breathe August when you have the whole of fall to look forward to. When I remembered that oh no, the glory of colors is gone, the leaves are down, the ground is turning hard and cold—when I remembered that, I got a bit hard and cold myself.

I do like winter, but fall—fall is a showy season. Winter teaches lessons of perseverance, but fall teaches us to marvel. Every year, when I realize that fall is over, that I'll be seeing the bare branches of the trees for the next few months, I want to go back to October and try really hard to appreciate every moment. I want a do-over.


That isn't what I thought I'd write about tonight. It's past 11, and I'm in my bedroom in my parents' house. I wanted to write quickly to say: I had two experiences tonight on my drive that were emotional conundrums and quick changes.

The first was the whole thunderstorm in November thing.

The second was this: In one of the small towns I drove through, a few of the houses were already decorated for Christmas.

'Come on, people!' I thought. 'It's not even Thanksgiving yet. How do you think this makes the turkey feel? Like the overlooked second cousin of the holiday season? Would you want to feel like that?'

It was odd to feel indignant on behalf of a pilgrim holiday, but I went with it.

And then I realized that I had no right to be so upset: I was singing along to "I'll Be Home for Christmas."

I've been listening to Christmas music for two weeks; I blame the early start on my choir. We've been practicing for our Christmas concert since October, and when "Angels We Have Heard on High" gets in your head, you may as well hum along {don't do this too loudly in stores, fyi}. And then pull out the Time-Life Treasury of Christmas Classics, just to give your head something else to sing along to.

I don't know where I developed this belief that you shouldn't decorate for Christmas until the Sunday after Thanksgving, but it is firmly in me, so much so that I judge other people for breaking what they didn't know was a rule.

How dare they rush ahead. We must be thankful for every season, for every holiday, for every chance to see our family. We must not always be pushing ahead to the next thing.

But if you do that by singing, I'm totally okay with it, perhaps because it makes life more of a musical.

22 November 2010

little women

I saw a community theater production of Little Women over the weekend, and it was not half-bad. I say this as a former member of a community theater, so don't get the idea that I'm looking down on what happens when a group of people who have full-time jobs and families and other hobbies get together a show.

When you factor in everything else people in community theaters have going on, I think you should always give a standing ovation at the end of the show. It's admirable to want to give a couple hours of beauty to the community, especially in a way that puts you so—on display.

And really, how can anything related to Little Women ever be all bad?

After all, there is no day so terrible that Marmee and Jo and the rest of them can't make it seem a bit more bearable. This may be a good life lesson for me to keep in mind; it will blend well with my belief that Anne of Green Gables and Marilla can vastly cheer me up when I am in need of some self-care.

Anne and Jo {and their attendant mother figures}: These are two of my go-to girls, part of my arsenal of "taking care of me" weapons I pull out when I've had a bad day. {Other weapons include: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, red wine, and journalling.}

Anne and Jo are also two characters my friend Katie and I argue over. We don't fight over anything as prosaic and dull as the interpretation of the characters or what they can teach us or what reflection they give us of women's place in society at that time.

No, Katie and I argue over who gets to be Anne or Jo.

Not that we're playing dress-up and acting out the roles—no, that'd be ridiculous at our age.

We merely discuss, in hypothetical ways, who we're more like.

You know when you read a book, and there's a character that so reminds you of yourself—or who you'd like to be—that you start to identify strongly with them? You start to think that if you ever met in real life, if this person ever ripped themselves from the pages, you'd be best friends. You'd get each other without having to give a lot of back story.

You start to feel a bit possessive of the character, even though you fully understand that other people are reading the book and perhaps even identifying with her or him.

But that's why I love reading and interacting with stories so much: no matter how many other people know the story, your experience with it is still unique. Yours. Special. You're the one who, in your head, is most like Anne of Green Gables, even if you have brown hair and are not an orphan and live in America, not on an island in Canada.

Girls who want to be Anne also, in general, want to be Jo. Both are highly verbal and highly imaginative. Both are passionate, which is a kind way of saying they both have tempers they struggle to control. Anne and Jo are genuine and eager to experience and describe whatever they can; they have thoughtful eyes that take in more of the world in one glance than most of us see all day.

And in this similarity of Anne and Jo lies the problem for Katie and me. I guess you could also say that the problem lies partly in how similar Katie and I are.

{Girls who like Anne and Jo are also, by the way, drawn to Elizabeth Bennet, but Katie and I have never argued over who gets to be Elizabeth; I think she's accepted the fact that I'm the one with the Jane Austen-esque blog. My blog title alone gets me Elizabeth without a fight.}

Long ago—at the beginning of our friendship when we discovered a shared love of Anne—I'd staked my claim in Anne of Green Gables. Very, very deeply. As in—if I were a homesteader, they would recruit me pound the stakes into the hard prairie soil at the corner of each claim. I was here to stay in the belief that I was Anne.

I told Katie she got to be Diana, Anne's best friend, and that even though Diana is frightened to use her imagination after they scare the bejeezus out of themselves by imaging ghosts in the woods, Diana is a lovely girl. Steady. Trustworthy. Loyal. All things Katie is, plus, I told her, if she were Diana, that means she gets to get drunk on raspberry cordial.

When you're trying to reason with a girl who thinks she deserves to be Anne of Green Gables, pointing out that she gets to drink is not a strong argument for making her be the best friend.

I refused to budge, though, partly because the last time I had this "Am I more like Anne or are you?" discussion, it was with a bosom buddy who had red hair. I can't compete with someone for the title of Anne when she looks like the modern-day reincarnation of the girl.

I felt it was my turn to be Anne. I deserved this.

But then, in the course of my friendship with Katie, we worked our way around to Jo and Little Women. {I assume other friendships involve these same literary discussions, yes?}

Truth be told, I am more like Jo than Anne, but I couldn't very well demand to be both of them {in again, this hypothetical world Katie and I were creating}. That'd be so selfish of me. So not like Anne or Jo.

And so even though I'm a brunette and even though I'm a writer, I let Katie be Jo. I even put it in writing {which, not to belabor the point here, but that is something that Jo would do}.

Katie is like Jo, of course. She's generous with her friendship and with her encouragement, just as Jo is. She holds tightly to those she values, and she's a hard worker who isn't too proud to laugh at herself. She likes games, and she has this knack of making even the most ordinary activity feel like an adventure.

Those are all very Jo-like things, but let me repeat: I'm a writer. I have a writer's callous, and I come home from work many days with ink spots on my hands {I'm a messy writer, just like Jo!}.

Katie, it might be time to renegotiate.

I will consider letting you have Anne for half the year if I can have Jo for that same half.

But I still get Elizabeth Bennet. I'm firm on that point, Anne.

19 November 2010

faced with a choice, i choose chicken

Today, I am faced with a choice: write a little or eat fried chicken.

When it comes down to it, there are always things to do instead of write. What those things are changes on a day-by-day basis, and they change as you go through different chunks of your life.

Sometimes it's the dust on top of the bookshelf that keeps you from writing; other times it's reading a book with someone else's writing {that sounds better and truer than your writing} that keeps you from writing.

You know all the right advice: to get better at writing, you must do it consistently. You must do it when you don't feel like it. You must do it when you cringe at every word that comes out of your head. You must do it when it's easy, and you must not be daunted by the enormity of the task, this getting yourself or your idea or that pesky character who's been running circles in your head onto paper.

But still.

There will always be things that are more appealing than writing. For me this morning, it's fried chicken.

A Chick-Fil-A just opened down the street from my office, and I'm reminded how much this suburb of mine works like a small town. Ever since we heard the rumor that Chick-Fil-A was moving in, this has been prime conversation around town. I've talked about it at church, at choir practice, at the gym, at the office.

I'm reminded of a line from The Music Man: Prof. Harold Hill, who's just arrived in little River City, Iowa, asks his friend Marcellus, "What do people talk about around here? What's new in town?"

And Marcellus answers, "Well, there's the weather. When it's in season."

For months, it seemed that Chick-Fil-A came up whenever someone was asked, "What's new in town?" As if we had nothing else interesting going on in our own lives, but hey, did you hear that soon we'll have another fried chicken option?

Chick-Fil-A officially opened last week, and so this week, they're giving away free breakfasts. If I time it right, I can swing by there before heading into work for the day, but in order to make it on time, I'll need to forgo my plan of having a concentrated, long-ish time of writing.

But right now, eating a chicken sandwich sounds more appealing, and so off I go, leaving you with two poems: one by Tess Gallagher and one by me {one written kind of in response to Tess Gallagher's poem. The idea of her poem, the feeling it evoked in me, was floating around my head one day, and this is the poem that came out.}

First, the not-mine one.

i stop writing the poem

to fold the clothes. No matter who lives
or who dies, I'm still a woman.
I'll always have plenty to do.
I bring the arms of his shirt
together. Nothing can stop
our tenderness. I'll get back
to the poem. I'll get back to being
a woman. But for now
there's a shirt, a giant shirt
in my hands, and somewhere a small girl
standing next to her mother
watching to see how it's done.

And now mine.

what i do instead of write

I make coffee. Drink it.
Watch TV.
Vacuum with the TV on in the background, even though I can't hear it over the vroooom of cleanliness.

I paint. (That's creativity at work!)
Read. (Getting inspiration!)

I tweeze my chin hairs.
Look for gray hairs.
I figure out what to wear.

I do not go on dates.

I bite my nails.

I wait for inspiration, thankful for the distraction from the silence.

16 November 2010

a place for everything

A place for everything, and everything in its place.

This is a mantra of my life, right up there with "Early to bed and early to rise makes [me] healthy, wealthy, and wise." That Ben Franklin, he really knew what he was doing when he made up mantras. For me, at least. I feel a personal connection to Ben every time I look at a $100 bill. Not that I look at those often.

{And I would like to say that I lay claim to just the "healthy" part of the early to bed and early to rise promise. "Wealthy and wise" I'm not so sure about, but I'll keep going to bed at 10 and getting up at 5:20 to see if those two parts work out eventually.}

If you follow the place mantra, then you always know where your checkbook is. And your keys, cell phone, and tax documents and whatever else people tend to panic over when they can't find them.

This is a good thing, a time-saving thing, a bringing-sanity-to-your-life thing.

However, the flip side is that if you take the mantra to the extreme, then when dinner guests offer to help you clean and put away the dishes, you hover like a eagle, ready to swoop in when they put something in the wrong place. You go in for the kill, pulling a wine glass off the second shelf and putting it on the first. This tends to make everyone feel that they're being judged in a housekeeping competition.

Or you can pretend to be very laissez-faire about it all, very much like a songbird flitting around, happily trilling about everyone helping you. Then, when they're gone, you creep back into the kitchen and bring order to their well-intentioned chaos.

When "A place for everything and everything in its place" is a mantra of your life, you tend to see slightly misplaced objects as chaos.


But then one Sunday night, I didn't follow my own mantra. If I had, I would not have put my wallet on top of the toilet paper holder in a bathroom stall at O'Hare. That is not its place; my wallet does not belong there.

And now my wallet no longer belongs to me.


Obviously, this is just the beginning of my wallet story. A teaser, if you will, and I hope it makes you want to read more. If it doesn't, don't let me know; I just lost my wallet, so I can't take much more disappointing news.

15 November 2010

sunday evening

Sunday evenings have always been my favorite time of the week. I wasn't one of those kids who dreaded going back to school come Monday morning, and even now, I don't get those Sunday evening doldrums about Monday morning back in the office—most of the time, I should admit.

I've always viewed Sunday evenings as a chance to gear up for the week, to think ahead to what's good, what's challenging, what's motivating {and what I'll need some extra motivation to get through}.

Sunday evening is a pause before busyness; all of Sunday should be a pause before busyness, in my view.

Sunday should be long walks. Or big cups of tea, if that's your thing.

It should be writing cards or folding clothes—just little things to check off your to-do list. Not such big tasks that they're overwhelming; Sundays are not for vacuuming the baseboards.

It should be the time you get to read the whole newspaper, not just a few stories here and there. It is, by the way, okay to start by reading the comics.

And it should be the time you let yourself watch a favorite old movie while eating popcorn and wearing your flannel pj pants {that you changed into at 7pm}.

Or confession of what I did last night: I watched a Disney movie. Not like old school Disney Beauty and the Beast, but new school Disney, the teeny bopper kind that is set in a perfect small town, one most likely in California. I know that those things are made for 12-year-olds who have no idea of what high school is like, but I—even knowing that people in high school don't fall into such clear-cut roles—get drawn to those things like underclassmen girls to the quarterback.

And related confession: I looked up the movie online today and saw that it's based on a book by Meg Cabot. You know, the lady who wrote The Princess Diaries. Oh, you didn't know that? Well, now you do. It's good to keep up on young adult lit. Then you know what the kids are talking about. Unless they use all that text-y language. Then no one knows what they're talking about.

Also, I'm headed to the library after work to get said book that was made into a Disney movie. I need a little light reading in my life.

But back to Sunday evenings: in my house growing up, Sunday evening was pizza night, which may also be playing into my perpetual Sunday evening excitement, even if I don't have pizza night any more. {Note to self: order pizza next Sunday night.}

Sunday, to me, always has been and always will be cozy family. All of us were home then, and even if we were all doing different things—homework, paying bills, playing chess—we were all there. In one house. And ready to run to the door when the pizza man came.

DH Lawrence's poem "Piano" captures my Sunday evening coziness. When I read this poem, I'm reminded of how good literature can take you somewhere else, perhaps somewhere the writer never intended you to go.

I read this poem, ostensibly about a piano and a mother and a grown man, and I don't see the image that Lawrence is painting; my own emotional picture is in the way.

I read his line "till the heart of me weeps to belong / To the old Sunday evenings at home" and I see my sister and me playing games on our old blue-screened, very early computer. I see me doing homework at the kitchen table, and I see a family game of Parcheesi or Hearts.

I like how literature can do that—how DH Lawrence {of all people; I've never cared much for him} can give me an emotional snap and reminder of why I love Sunday evenings.

dh lawrence

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

13 November 2010

statistical insights

I have a confession.

I am obsessed with stats.

This may make my parents the accountants overjoyed, this passion for numbers and data, but actually, I'm pretty sure they already knew that obsession of mine.

Plus, I think they're overjoyed to have a writer in the family; it rounds out the family line-up, which is heavily weighted towards the sciences.

But here are the stats I'm obsessed with: the ones that tell me how many people visit my blog, how they got here, and what they look at.

Yes, I'm obsessed with you. And your statistical significance in relation to me. I am obsessed with your p-value.

{That's one of the only terms I remember from my actual stats class in college, so I could be misusing it. Thought I'd throw it out there anyway, in case in makes me sound smarter.}

Right now, I'm most fascinated with the search terms that people used to get to my blog. Those are like little insights into the soul of a searcher.

Who, for example, sat down recently and searched "slice ornament Christmas mistletoe"? And what were they hoping to find? Perhaps instructions on making a Christmas ornament from orange slices and mistletoe?

But why would you want to do that? I mean, the oranges would, over the course of the Christmas season, shrivel up and most likely start to smell non-citrus-y.

Also, it's my belief that mistletoe shouldn't be combined with anything else. It's a statement piece {the statement: "Kiss me now"}, and if you muddle it with oranges, the statement could become muddled. People could start to think you're just supposed to wave at each other. Or shake hands.

And no one would naturally end up under the mistletoe if it were hanging as an ornament on the tree. Well, maybe your Christmas is a lot different than mine, but I see very little reason for two people to be lying down under the tree during a holiday party. And the whole point of mistletoe—based on my real-life experience with it via Hallmark Christmas movies—is to give two people who won't admit that they like each other an excuse to awkwardly kiss; the whole plot hinges on the mistletoe placement.

But enough on my mistletoe and orange ideas. {I didn't realize I felt so strongly about mistletoe.}

Another question this "slice ornament Christmas mistletoe" search brings up is: How did Google decide that this ornament mistletoe searcher should come to my little ode to my friend Lauren—in which I very briefly mention Christmas ornaments but do not mention a slice ornament?

And what did they think when they got here?

Of course, my Google stats can't tell me that, the details of what was going through someone's brain when they found themselves mired in a blog with Jane Austen in the title but that isn't about Jane Austen at all and is even less about Christmas ornaments. If Google could tell me that, this particular post would have a different tone to it. That being: stop thinking, everyone. Google knows. And they know that I just warned you, so really, I'm in more trouble than you are.

Three other interesting things to point out on my search terms:

  • Many people get to my blog my searching on a variation of the title: Jane Austen didn't prepare, Jane Austen never taught me that, Jane Austen lessons. I'm guessing that these are people who know me, and I have casually mentioned my blog to them. However, because I still feel a bit stilted in self-promoting, I must not have told them the actual address. I must've said something like, "Yeah, I blog a little. Um, it's called Jane Austen Didn't [mumble mumble mumble]. Yeah, so...how are you? Let's talk about you."

    To all those people, I say: thank you for your persistence in Google stalking me. I wanted you to read my stuff, but my Midwestern shyness got in the way.
  • More than one person has gotten here when searching for my sister. I am sorry, [insert sister's name here]. I'm now scared to mention you by name in case I'm helping any freaky stalker find you.

    I would, however, like to point out that our parents did us no favors in giving us such distinctive names. We are incredibly easy to find on the Interwebs, even if you don't know our last names. I'm going to start calling you Sarah, even in real life. See you at Thanksgiving, Sarah!
  • Several people have searched for "horse tattoo" or "galloping horse tattoo" or even "how to get a horse to gallop." They ended up here because I wrote awhile back about my mother's tattoo—a blue horse galloping across her upper thigh. If you've read that piece, you know, then, that I freaked out when my mother got a tattoo; that other people are searching for the same type of tattoo is actually somewhat reassuring to me.

    And Mama, perhaps we should consider putting a picture of your tattoo on here so that all those people looking for tattoo inspiration can find it here. {Also, that person who searched "how to get a horse to gallop" must not really be into horses all that much. Even I, someone who just tolerates horses, knows that you get them to gallop by wearing spurs, kicking them, and saying, "Giddy up!"}

All this discussion of how these people got to me has me curious: how did you get here?

11 November 2010

profoundly thankful {preparation for thanksgiving}

I am profoundly thankful
for Indian summer
hot showers
and Bath & Body Works Moonlit Path lotion

For my running path of crushed gravel
and for my arms swinging, muscles flexing

For a muscle knot in my upper back
and for the friend who kneads it out
for being needed
and for kneading bread

For French bread
and French words:
raplapla et boulversee
that tell you what they mean
by their very sound

For the sound of train whistles in the night
when I'm reading in bed
two pillows stacked beneath my head
the book propped on my chest

For the smell of library books
and for opening a new book.

For all this
I am profoundly thankful
and I do not
say that enough.

09 November 2010

i was still at a bar

I wrote the beginning of this bar story {one of my few bar stories} the other day, so if you want to read all the build-up {and why, for example, I'm talking about poetic effusions below}, you should read that.


I was about to make one of those poetic effusions to my friend Anna. It was probably going to be along the lines of, "This bar makes me feel like a 20-something who has a place." Over-the-top, I know, but poetic effusions aren't known for being low-key.

But before I could say that, a boy appeared at my side, a different boy than the one who had offered to buy me a vodka and Red Bull.

"I saw you playing that basketball game. You look more like you belong on the sidelines in a cheerleading skirt," he said, leaning in to whisper and slipping an arm around my waist.

Truth can be so ugly coming from the wrong mouth.

I turned to look him straight in the eye, which wasn't hard because he didn't go much above my 5'2". I had a clear shot into his brain—a brain considerably muddled by alcohol—and all I found there was me doing a defense chant in his apartment, an impossible dream on his part. "So how about we go somewhere else to get to know each other?"

You may think this guy destroyed my pre-nostalgia glow, my reverie of thinking about how much I was enjoying this particular moment. And it is true that I stopped smiling so encouragingly and widely at the world in general, but everyone at the bar in specific. I've learned that my pre-nostalgia smile, when sent in the wrong direction, can look like, "Hey, you. Come on over here and say things that make me blink in shock."

Actually, this guy increased my pre-nostalgia because even as he was talking, I thought, 'I got hit on! In a bar! In Lincoln Park! This will make a good story!'

I neatly removed his arm and said, "I saw you playing that basketball game. You look more like you belong on a soccer field."

He laughed.

Said something about my acerbic wit.

Tried to get me to leave with him again.

Eventually, he got the hint that I was staying right where I was, at the bar that had sent me into a pre-nostalgic spin. I was staying with my friends, listening to bands in a back room draped in twinkle lights. It took him longer than it should have to get the hint.

But I got something, too: another good story—one that begins with, "I was at a bar, and..."

07 November 2010

i was at a bar

This is the beginning of a story I've been trying to tell for over a week. I've been on a work trip in Miami, and as glitzy as that sounds, it turns out you never have as much free time as you want when you're on a work trip. And all the free time you do have, you want to spend lying down not talking to anyone because you're a bit social-ed out.

So I didn't spend my free time writing; I think I knew in the back of my mind that I wouldn't have time, but I always have hopes that I'll wake up early, go for a run on the beach, and then write by the pool before getting to my first meeting at 8am. I don't know how I thought that'd be possible.

In these few moments I have before I board my plane back to Chicago, I'm going to get the beginning of this story out. Finally.


It was Friday night, and I was at a bar.

I realize this is a completely normal statement for a 28-year-old to make, but not for this 28-year-old. I probably have less than five stories that start with, “I was at a bar.” Maybe even less than three, and most of them take place in a foreign country: “I was at a bar in…Barcelona.” That’s because people do abnormal-for-them things while studying abroad, all under the guise of learning more about the culture. (Helpful tip: don’t point out to anyone who studied abroad that most of their pictures and stories are filled with other Americans studying abroad.)

To put this in perspective—in case I need to prove more that I am not a bar girl—I probably have 117 stories that with, “I was at a museum.” And I have maybe 562 that start “I was at a café.”

This would be a non-exciting Venn diagram (are they ever really exciting?), but there’s most likely a sizable intersection of stories that feature both a museum and a café. Arty coffee makes for a good story.

But this one Friday night in October, the day before Halloween, I was at a bar in Lincoln Park, which is a trendy part of Chicago.

A sidetrack of a geography lesson, for those of you not familiar with Chicago’s neighborhoods and the stereotypes associated with them: Most fresh-from-college kids move to Wrigleyville, the neighborhood around Wrigley Field. They go there, I presume, because you drink to celebrate a Cub victory and drink more to commiserate a Cub loss—and of course, the latter happens more often.

It doesn’t hurt that there are also lots of hot dog stands in Wrigleyville, places that stay open way past my bedtime and are known for yelling at you if you want ketchup on your hot dog because everyone knows that a true Chicago hot dog comes with relish, onion, pepper, and mustard—and never, ever any ketchup. The yelling bit is part of their character and fame, and I bet it’s a hilarious experience at 2am—to be yelled at over cased meat product.

After awhile, though, the extended Greek life, all this excessive partying as if they were still 21 and could start the weekend on Thursday night, this starts to wear. This is when people move to Lincoln Park, which is classier. More grown-up feeling.

There are still bars, yes, but they’re more upscale: there are more wine bars and fewer bars with a floor that makes you wish you could levitate because you can’t stand the idea of touching it, even with your shoes.

Lincoln Park is more refined, but it’s also like your cousin who pretends that she’s no longer from a small town just because she’s been in the Big City for a minute. You know that under the overpriced skinny jeans is someone who drops her g’s, hangs out at the Dairy Queen, and went to parties in cornfields when she was in high school.

And like your cousin, Lincoln Park still knows how to party, especially on a Friday night.

I was not in one of those classy wine bars. I was in a neighborhood bar, the kind where you could set a sitcom about late 20-somethings trying to figure out how they’re going to make it after all. This bar would be where they come every Thursday night after work to sit at the corner bar and to play darts.

Not that this bar had a dart board, but I’m sure the props department could take care of that for the show.

The bar—called The Store, I’m guessing because it used to be a store—had one of those arcade basketball games, the kind where you have 45 seconds and a lot of small basketballs to make as many baskets as you can. There’s a soundtrack of cheering and whistles and buzzers, a soundtrack familiar to me from Friday nights in high school.

I wasn’t at the parties that took place in cornfields; I was on the sidelines of a football field or a basketball court in a short purple skirt shouting from my diaphragm: “Defense! Defense! Get that ball!”

A band—a French gypsy jazz band—had just finished their set in the back room, which was decorated with twinkle lights and Halloween stuff. There were fake cobwebs stretched across the windows and decals of ghosts on the mirrors. It's difficult to feel that you're in an edgy bar when it's decorated like a second grade classroom on the day of the big Halloween parade.

I am easily enamored by places that burst with quirks, places that feel like conundrums, and this place qualified.

For starters, it had a small town feel sitting squarely in a neighborhood that puts the chic in Chicago. Then there was the French gypsy jazz that transported me to this little cafe I used to go to every Tuesday when I lived in Normandy—but in reality, of course, I was still standing in Illinois, holding a rum and coke, a fake spider dangling next to my shoulder.

At The Store, there were people in costumes and people still in work clothes (which is kind of like wearing a costume, I guess) and then there were the people all dressed up to go out, tall heels and small shirts.

I felt, standing there next to the arcade basketball game, that anyone could feel at home in this bar, and I felt so—part of something larger—just by being there.

I get this swirling excitement about a seemingly ordinary place or event or object a lot, and it usually builds up to expressing my general love of humanity in a way that would make Anne of Green Gables proud: a poetic effusion on a diner or a city park on a Saturday afternoon or two thick-handled coffee mugs on a table between two friends.

When this happens, I tend to get this big shine of a smile that doesn't show my teeth, making my face all cheek. My eyes dart everywhere, as if I were trying to categorize and file away every detail about this memory. Well, that's what I am doing.

I become a stalker of my own experience at times, and I came up with a term for the reverie I fall into: pre-nostalgia. I feel nostalgic for a moment before I'm done living it.

You know when you're in a good moment, don't you? When you look around at the people with you and the arcade basketball game beside you and think—I have a pretty okay life. I get to laugh, dance a little to French gypsy jazz, and that boy just offered to buy me a drink.

Yeah, this is more than okay, and that's when the pre-nostalgia sets in. While you're in the moment, you start thinking about how you'll describe the moment later on, how you'll tell the story so that other people feel like they were there, even if they've never been to a bar in Lincoln Park.

Perhaps this is just a problem for writers. Or—and I hope this isn't true—just for me.


I do actually have a story from this bar—not just poetic effusions on how it was one of those quintessential nights. My newest story that starts with "I was at a bar" is coming soon. Perhaps even tomorrow.


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